Jazz: Dead or Alive?

Fenster writes:

Here’s a link to an article by Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic on whether jazz remains a vital art form or not.  It takes the form of a review of the book The Jazz Standards, by Ted Gioia.

Schwartz admires a lot about Gioia’s book.  And along the way he makes some interesting points.  He quotes approvingly of one reviewer on Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece that “it’s hard to think of another piece of music that has anything at all in common with ‘Lush Life‘”.  Nicely put.

But that’s not the main point of Schwartz’s book review.  His main game is to take issue with Gioia’s contention–after Gioia’s own acknowledgement that his book mostly enshrines old classics–that jazz remains a “vibrant present day endeavor”.  Schwartz riffs it the other way, arguing that jazz is a relic.

His argument is based on the nature of the relationship between jazz and the Great American Songbook, “a body of refined, complex work that stands at the apogee of this country’s civilization, mostly written for the musical theater from roughly the 1920s to the 1950s by such composers and lyricists as Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Vincent Youmans, and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.”

Jazz’s high point in Gioia’s account is roughly coterminous with the Songbook.  What does this mean?  According the Schwartz, Gioia steps back from drawing from this overlap the correct conclusion: that the relationship between jazz and the Songbook goes beyond the fact that many of the jazz greats improvised on Songbook material, and that the relationship between the two genres was fundamentally symbiotic.  Put in the words of Cahn and van Heusen:

You can’t have one,

you can’t have none,

you can’t have one without the other!

And along with the drying up of the Songbook comes the inevitable atrophying of the jazz that was intertwined with it.

Schwartz’s argument is to me persuasive.  He doesn’t just toss the idea out but makes a good effort to back it up with specifics about artist attitudes and song structure.  And the argument resonates with me since I often find current jazz wanting and have not been sure why.  Artists who continue to mine the Songbook seem like they have overstayed their welcome.  And works that riff on more modern material end up unsatisfying in their own way.  As much as I love the Beatles, hearing their work done by Blue Note artists or Brad Mehldau only serves to underscore the fundamental difference between the pop song structure in the Songbook and more recent pop-rock song structure.  The former for some reason seems to fit jazz like a glove.  The latter not so much.

Any thoughts?  Do you find current jazz wanting?  Has jazz inevitably reached the canon stage?  And can you have one without the other?

N.B.  None of this applies to Thelonius Monk.  He’s not joined at the hip to the Songbook as much as he is to Stravinsky.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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10 Responses to Jazz: Dead or Alive?

  1. epiminondas says:

    I think it’s reached the canon stage…just as Rock and Roll has already done.


  2. Toddy cat says:

    Personally, I think that Jazz is still a living, viable art form, but there’s no doubt that it was in better shape fifty years ago than it is today, and it may be on its way to atrophy. It’s still more “alive” than rock is, as epiminondas points out.


  3. Fenster says:

    Larkin is in the library up the street and I will go get. Looks interesting from Amazon. Thanks.

    Also interesting that while we are debating whether jazz lives in 2012 Larkin said it was dead by 1945. I take it he is no friend to modernism.

    I grew up with rock and R&B so only appreciated jazz from afar. Being young and callow as opposed to old and the same, I took the blackness of jazz to signify something similar as R&B in terms of grit and soul. Yes it had all that but I didn’t quite get till later the extent to which jazz was part of the modernist movement, as much in keeping with Stravinsky as Percy Sledge.

    I guess you could envision the Songbook as growing out of a premodernist conception of song, with jazz its edgy half-brother?


    • Toddy cat says:

      Yeah, I kind of got into Jazz through Modernism, Brubeck and all that. Of course, the Songbook had its modernist aspects as well, along with its traditionalism. That’s part of what made it so unique. There’s really nothing else like it.


  4. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    Artistic forms bud, flower then die. Nothing can stop or reverse it. Revivals actually create new forms because the essence of the original can’t be repeated, the times have changed and moved on. All of which is to say Jazz is at the museum stage. Good new stuff might happen here and there the same way an otherwise dead tree might have a few green leaves still on it.


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      >>All of which is to say Jazz is at the museum stage. Good new stuff might happen here and there the same way an otherwise dead tree might have a few green leaves still on it.

      I don’t know a whole lot about jazz, but this has always been my impression, too.


  5. chucho says:

    I commented over there, but in general I agreed with the article. I think Sir Barken is correct in that it’s inevitable that jazz died (and so did rock, a while ago), so we’re just left to debate the causes. Schwartz thinks the reason is primarily the songbook, but the ‘classic’ songbook era was dying out by the early 60s, a decade in which I believe jazz was still thriving. I’ll even go further personally and say the 70s was a great period for jazz as well, when fusion and the avant-garde reigned. The beginning of the end is the late 70s, when things branch off into lite-jazz and the arrival of the traditionalists of Wynton’s ilk.

    I agree that rock’s songbook was not as adaptable to jazz as the traditional Tin Pan Alley stuff, but I think that’s a function of the songs being less harmonically interesting (I-IV-V, etc). But the curious thing is that by the early 60s, jazz was moving steadily away from chord-heavy songs and more toward modal, “one-chord” harmony anyway. So I’m not entirely convinced that the songbook is the major reason jazz died.


  6. Fenster says:

    Interesting point that it is not all about the songbook. When I think of it I myself came to jazz in the 70s, well after the dying out of the songbook’s central role (a dying out I was cheering from the sidelines little did I know). And in that era, you didn’t have Gary Burton or Chick Corea or John McLaughlin doing the classics. But fake jazz also showed up then, too.


  7. Pingback: All What Jazz | Uncouth Reflections

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